James discovers whether size matters as he reviews this week’s release of Irwin Allen’s 1960s spectacular…
The accusation that is most often levelled at Irwin Allen’s shows is that they are dumb so let’s deal with that right from the off. They are dumb. Incredibly dumb. As dumb as a lobotomised chicken who crosses the road to stay on the same side. I doubt there’s a single episode across any of his four shows which doesn’t have at least one point where the viewer won’t feel the need to don a military uniform and false moustache and sternly tell the screen to stop being so silly. In an era which was also producing The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits it’s easy to imagine just how asinine most of his output must have looked to anyone with even a passing interest in the genre, and even now when series such as Outcasts and Primeval grace our screens the likes of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea with its giant mermen and The Time Tunnel with its ghosts of Nero and Lost in Space with its everything still give Allen a good shot at having collectively the stupidest sci-fi CV of all time. But you know what? Sometimes dumb is okay. There’s enough good stuff around that we can afford to wallow in drivel in a post-pub Friday night convivial atmosphere and not feel too bad about it. The important thing is that, by and large, Allen’s shows are entertainingly dumb, and while quite often there’s a sense of condescension towards the viewer there isn’t the exploitative cynicism that modern B-movies by such auteurs as the Asylum have about them. Allen was a showman, a descendant of PT Barnum, who created a bright whirl of noise and colour which diverted the punters and made them laugh. It’s not big and it’s not clever, but you still go home with a smile on your face and these days that’s the best way to look at them.
The problem comes when the joke begins to wear off. Enter Land of the Giants, the last of Allen’s shows before he became the “master of disaster” in the Seventies. In small doses it is as entertainingly daft as any of his other efforts, but when the episodes are bundled together in a nice big DVD boxset all at once one very swiftly begins to lose the will to live. At the heart of the issue is the fact that the show, even more than most built around a formula, only has two default episode types, and once you’ve seen a couple of each it all begins to get quite wearying. The story follows the crew and passengers of the Spindrift, a futuristic (from 1983!) ship which flies through an electrical storm that transports them to a parallel world in which everyone is twelve times as tall and nurture a pathological hatred of “little people.” Don’t ask why any of this happens, it just does. Each week our intrepid Gullivers, led by the lantern-jawed Captain Steve Burton (Gary Conway), battle to repair their ship and avoid capture, something they prove spectacularly incompetent at, while occasionally they involve themselves in the affairs of the giants. Along the way they are pursued by the Gerard-like Inspector Kobick (Kevin Hagen) who is as equally incompetent in apprehending his fugitives as his more down-to-earth predecessor. So each week you either get a character-is-captured-and-has-to-escape story, or a giant-has-a-problem-let’s-help-them one, which doesn’t sound so bad but very quickly becomes tedious.
The series premiered in 1968. A year previously, Allen had had no less than three productions running simultaneously, but with the cancellation of them all he threw himself hell for leather into this new project, determined to make his most extravagant show yet. And it shows. No matter what else you can say about LotG it looks spectacular. There are a few matte shots of little people in front of giant animals that look dodgy but otherwise the production stands up remarkably well even today, with the multiple shots per episode of the little people encountering the giants looking stupidly realistic while, although one never forgets that we’re in a studio, the verdant forest set which is the primary focus for most episodes still looks gorgeous. The USP of the series, of course, is the interaction of our borrowers with giant props and people, and in that regard there is almost nothing to complain about. There’s an amusing tendency to state the bleeding obvious, like having a giant box with the word “Matches” scrawled on the side so we’re left in no doubt as to its contents, but within that context the show works superbly as our heroes scramble over huge pistols and avoid giant dogs. The problem is – and it’s the series’s main issue, rather than the ludicrous plotting – that the appeal of this wears off pretty quickly. The first couple of episodes are genuinely striking. “Hey look at them clambering over that science equipment! That’s pretty cool!” is followed by “Nice giant alarm clock there.” By episode three, however, the novelty begins to wear off, so that “Oh look, this week it’s an oversized gun” is swiftly followed by “Heh. A big camera. Wonder what else is on?”
And so the episodes ultimately grow increasingly repetitive. Beyond a handful of episodes there’s little attempt to break out of the capture-escape formula, with only the nature of the trap changing. So one episode our heroes are captured by a circus master, the next they end up in a haunted house (really) and so on. The best of these is undoubtedly Ghost Town, perhaps the only episode which made a lasting impression on popular culture, in which our heroes are chased around a model village by a sadistic girl with shades of Violet Elizabeth Bott about her. The only major variation, as said, are those episodes in which the characters get involved in the lives of the giants in some way. These are generally among the daftest episodes, including the unlikely Rescue and the unlikelier Framed (check out those say-what-you-see titles!) The one decent iteration of this formula is Sabotage in which Robert “The Time Tunnel” Colbert plays a villainous detective out to stop a Senator who believes the little people to be no threat. Admittedly in the hands of a Serling or Roddenberry this concept would have commented more directly on some of the real-world issues the States was facing at the time, rather than just being another run-around as it is here, but as it’s one of the few episodes that reflected the real world in some small degree we must be grateful for small mercies. It’s also, for LotG aficionados, an interesting historical show in that Colbert’s character is clearly a forerunner for Kobick, who turns up only a couple of episodes later in Genius At Work. This is another reasonable instalment (which also stars a young Ron Howard) arguably the best Kobick show, albeit more because of the concept than any contribution the bland Hagen makes – there was inevitably going to be an episode in which one of the little people became a giant (the converse, a giant being shrunk down, having happened earlier in the season in Flight Plan) but it’s fun to see all the same. Other episodes not entirely without merit include The Crash which after Lost in Space is Allen’s best pilot and Target Earth about which more below. However, in all honesty I’m picking at straws to single out highlights – even the best episodes suffer from the blunt, functional dialogue and often tiringly trite plotting. There is very rarely any sense of jeopardy – perhaps because the capture-escape formula is so prevalent, episode after episode just comes across as going through the motions, so much so that one clings desperately, like a drowning sailor to a rapidly-sinking masthead, to anything that offers the slightest variation. That said, while there’s a great deal of mediocrity in the season, it’s still splendidly easy to pick out the worst episode: The Lost Ones is a ghastly hour of television in which a group of – sigh – “groovy” teenagers are encountered by the crew and stick it to the Man, an excrescence in this set which makes you think maybe Reagan was right after all about these damn hippies. One hippy is played by Zalman King, who so lost the will to live afterwards he ended up making soft core bilge starring David Duchovny. Difficult to know if that was an improvement or not.
Normally you would hope that characterisation might step in and save the day, but seasoned Allen watchers know that generally he populates his shows with people who in comparison would make the cast of Peppa Pig look like they belong in Animal Farm and for whom the description cardboard is far too generous. The surprising thing is that in the early days this isn’t the case with LotG. They’re hardly rejects from Battlestar Galactica but the Spindrift crew do begin the series as vaguely recognisable human beings. Burton knocks heads several times with the antagonist businessman Dan Erickson, while Deanna Lund’s Valerie is a bit of a minx and a stirrer daringly different from the wholesome blandness of a Judy Robinson. Together they make the most fun group of Allen’s series to spend time with and amazingly there are even a couple of episodes which rely far more on the dynamic of their relationships than any external concept (The Golden Cage and, in particular, Target Earth in which there is a real rift in the group as they debate whether to attempt a risky return home.) Regrettably, however, this is not developed further as the show goes on but actually retrogresses – Lund loses her spark, Burton and Dan start agreeing and so on – so that by the end of the season the cast have been largely reduced to the regular Allen mannequins being asked to do whatever it is the story needs. Arguably the biggest mistake made is the attempt to replicate the Dr Smith/Will double act of Lost in Space with Kurt Kasznar and Stefan Arngrim who play carbon copies of that duo. It’s a stupid idea because blatantly Kasznar isn’t Jonathan Harris and it’s unfair to have expected him to be so, but he does his best and in fairness makes for a far more convincing villain than the pantomime dame Harris ever did. Regrettably, he’s lumbered with Arngrim, who was reportedly a great kid and a diligent worker but has zero screen presence and very limited ability, so much so that it makes one realise that LoS’s Bill Mumy, typical US TV moppet that he was, was actually very good at what he did. Perhaps it’s fortunate that by the season’s end Arngrim hit puberty and was relegated to bit-part status in season two, but his casting, and the evident desire to have Dr Smith Mark Two, restrain Kasznar from becoming what one can imagine could have been a rather slimy, enjoyable villain.
So yeah, LotG is not very good. Some have gone so far to say it’s terrible full stop, but I wouldn’t say that was fair – at its worst, it’s not as unbearable as the worst excesses of either Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea or Lost in Space – but it is terribly bland and often pretty boring. Down the years there has been an abundance of films and TV shows featuring people being shrunk or expanded, from the sublime (The Incredible Shrinking Man) to the ridiculous (The Secret Service) but hardly any have been as dull as this offering. The problem is simply that there is too much of it – the concept can’t stretch sufficiently, the novelty of seeing giant props fades too quickly, and the characters likewise quickly lose any spark of life they initially have. And yet, if you ration it to, say, one episode a month, it’s okay. Like going to the circus, you wouldn’t want to go every day, but once in a while a bit of stupid noise and colour isn’t so bad. That’s perhaps the ultimate irony for the series, one that I suspect Allen would never have understood: if only Land of the Giants had been a bit smaller, it would have been a far better show.
All 26 episodes of the first (1968-9) season of Land of the Giants are presented in this seven disc set. LotG has been available for a while on Region One in an elaborate complete series boxset but although we don’t get the comic book and pamphlet extras over here in just about every other way this release is preferable. The R1 came on horrible flipper discs (as do all the Irwin Allen sets in the US), had bland static menus and presented the episodes in air date order rather than that in which they were produced. While this nuance isn’t as critical as some fans of the show will tell you – the continuity between early episodes is very much overstated – there is a jarring effect in watching the show as it originally aired. For some reason the network wildly mixed up the order they wanted the shows to air in – the pilot was followed by Ghost Town, the 14th instalment made, and then episode 8 Framed and so on – so that in one episode our heroes are still lurking in a foggy jungle close to the Spindrift, then the next they’re off in some brightly lit adventure, then the very next back in the jungle. Watching in production order one can note both the gradual development of the environment in which the crew move and also the development of the types of story the show ended up doing which is mildly interesting. In general, it’s hard to find any aspect this R2 set doesn’t trump its R1 counterpart – even the presentation of the menus is better, with a little animated hand dangling our heroes appearing, and clips from the episodes running in the background. All in all, for R2 it was worth the wait.
In regards to the AV, the transfers appears to be a direct port from the Region 1 set. The good news is that this means LotG has pretty much the best looking Video transfer of any Allen show – certainly in comparison to the pretty dire LiS discs, there’s a world of difference. The colours are beautiful and clear and the image generally sharp, while the encoding handles the jungle sets with few problems. It’s hard to imagine how it could look better, frankly, at SD. There are less bells and whistles with the standard Audio track but it’s clear and vivid. Indeed, the only major criticism one can point at the set is that of the Extras only the Pilot is subtitled. Given the short running time of the other features, it’s a bit off they don’t also come with subs included.
However, having said all that, the extras are a bit thin. The most substantial is the Unaired Pilot (49:08) which is almost identical to the televised version of The Crash aside from substantially different, more dour lighting, a temporary theme and a different end sequence. There are no commentaries (as, indeed there aren’t on any Allen release) but interviews with Gary Conway (13:08) and Don Marshall (2:41) are included. It’s a bit of a shame the latter doesn’t get more time as he, in saying firmly that the writers were not going to allow Kasznar to take over the show, shows that he’s a bit spikier than Conway, who drones on about how the show is one of the most popular the world has ever seen. Uh-huh.
We also get a Special Effects Shots thrown in (1:27) which is silent and of little interest, consisting as it does not of a look at the matte effects but rather the Spindrift dangling ingloriously in front of a slowly turning moon. For me, though, the highlight is the inclusion of the Initial Presentation Reel (8:54) which pitched the show for ABC. Accompanied by wonderfully magniloquent narration, we get a narrated version of an early version of the pilot story, which aside from the basic premise differs greatly from that eventually filmed, realised with a mixture of suitably florid paintings and the odd model shot that borrows the Jupiter 2 from Lost in Space (and which actually looks quite dowdy in comparison to the Spindrift.) It’s moments when you hear stuff like “Into a space warp caused by cosmic photon mass!” that you realise why Allen’s shows are still around.
There is also a list of the original broadcast order, should you wish to refer to it, and episode synopses on each disc.
Initially one of the most enjoyable of Allen’s show, LotG also wears much quicker than any of his other efforts and while as I said above individually episodes are fun in a MST3K way it’s hard to recommend the complete season for any but committed fans. However, said fans at least get an excellent treatment of the show, and while the extras aren’t especially substantial in general this set does an excellent job for the series.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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